The Bird Tribunal is a place of darkness and of searching for redemption; set in a landscape of beauty and menace, its atmosphere is both bleak and fecund. It’s a short-ish book which makes great play of scenes in which nothing happens; yet its intensity can be exhausting as the relationship between the two main characters progresses – if that’s the right term – and lurches.
We aren’t at the end of page 1 before we know this is going to end badly, and the first meeting between the two protagonists sets up a disequilibrium of power that is unsettling and uncomfortable. As we explore the beautiful but isolated setting, we are in turns surprised and shocked. Allis, the narrator, is looking for a new start. It isn’t clear what Sigurd, her new employer, is looking for. But they are acutely aware of each other even though the communication between them is, to our eyes, unnatural and unpleasant.
Allis tends the large garden, which is a massive and moving metaphor for her feelings both for what she has left behind and what she is building in her new life. Sigurd is brooding and boorish. Yet Allis is determined to make her exile work, even as her isolation leads to obsession and infatuation. We unpeel the layers of her past as she is in turns bold, timid, calculating and naïve. And we learn more about Sigurd as his secrets are gradually unveiled. There is a rather well-constructed balance between Allis’ fear of the outside world and her and our ability to interpret various clues that are presented to us.
Agnes Ravatn’s story, translated by Rosie Hedger, builds slowly. We are provided with layer upon layer of unease, but the pace builds until we’re rushing towards a denouement. It’s compelling, it’s electrifying, and it’s the work of an author who knows precisely how to manipulate her readers’ emotions. Empty rooms, rodents and birds are not in themselves terrifying: The Bird Tribunal makes them so.
I read this book several weeks ago and my overall memory is of a world that is progressively more terrifying, of a landscape that can be tamed and mastered but of a fjordscape (if that’s a word) of secrets and malevolence. This world is worth a visit.
The Bird Tribunal is BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, starting on 23 January at 22.45hrs GMT.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.